CHAPTER XIX

MR. PONZI GOES SHOPPING AND BUYS A MILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF SUNDAY PARCELS

To buy a bank is no trivial incident. Even a comparatively small bank. Like the Hanover Trust Company. A man, after he gets to the point where he owns a bank, calls it a day and quits. If he is an average man. Of course, topnotchers don't quit. They never do. But you wouldn't call them average men. They are out of the ordinary. Professional, in their line. They gobble up banks faster than a turkey does mush. And their gizzards never feel congested.

I don't know anything about the condition of my own gizzard. After I bought the Hanover. It didn't feel congested. Just the opposite, rather. It felt as empty as if it was missing. In fact, I developed an awful appetite. I wanted to buy everything in sight.

I put my hooks out for the Prudential Trust Company. Its president thought he could give it to me for the price of the Custom House Tower. He didn't get to first base. I knew he was heading for a crash. And all I had to do was to stretch out my arms, to catch him before be struck the ground. Nevertheless, I made him a liberal offer. He turned it down. And crashed. Only, I wasn't there to catch him when he did.

In rapid succession, I bid on the Lawrence Trust Company, of Lawrence. On the Carney Building, in Tremont Street. And other properties. I bought myself a house in Lexington. One in Winthrop. A small apartment building in the West End. I took a half-dozen mortgages here and there. Purchased a substantial interest in the C. & R. Construction Company. A few in the Fidelity Trust Company. In the Tremont Trust Company. I even bought myself the Napoli Macaroni Company. So that I wouldn't run out of spaghetti at home.

The more I bought, the more I wanted to buy. It was a mania. A frenzy. I almost bought the Niles Building. The one in which I had my office. It seems the other tenants had been kicking. They claimed they couldn't get to their offices. Because my investors blocked the entry, the elevator, the stairs and the corridors. O'Brien, superintendent of the Niles Building, sent for me.

"I am sorry, Mr. Ponzi," he said. "But if you can't regulate the crowd that comes to your office, I have to give you notice to move."

"I am equally as sorry, Mr. O'Brien," I told him. "But I shall not move."

"You can't expect me to lose the other tenants on your account," he protested.

"I should worry about them!" I replied, "Let them move. I'll take the entire floor."

"But your people are blocking also the entry and the stairs," he complained.

"Oh, all right. Let's not argue over it," I said, "Name your price and I'll buy the building."

The superintendent could find no words in reply. He knew I had the money. And was crazy enough to go through with the deal. Just to win my point. I don't know how he managed to satisfy the other tenants. But I didn't move.

The day I couldn't buy something, I felt actually disappointed. An auto salesman caught me in that mood one afternoon.

"I have a car," I told him.

"A good car?" he asked me with a bit of sarcasm.

"What do you think?" I retorted. "Do you suppose I drive around in a wheelbarrow?"

"I have been told you own a Hudson," he said.

"It's very true," I admitted. "And I am very much satisfied with it."

"But you need a much larger and more expensive car," the salesman urged.

"What, for instance?" I asked. "What are you selling, anyway?"

"Locomobiles," he replied, spreading an open folder in front of me.

I looked through it. Found the picture of the car that caught my fancy.

"How much for that?" I inquired point out to him the one I wanted.

"$12,600 delivered," he replied.

"All right," I said. "Send it right over. I'll take it."

"But I cannot deliver that car now," he said.

"When can you deliver it?" I wanted to know.

"In about three months," he answered.

"Too late," I told him. "I want that car right away."

"That car isn't even finished," he said. "It's being made to order for a New York millionaire."

"When will it be ready?" I asked. Knowing by then that the car was hard to get, I wanted it. Just to put something over the New York millionaire.

"In about two weeks," he told me. "It must be delivered by July 1st."

"Fine!" I exclaimed. "Have it downstairs, in front of the door, by July 1st."

"But that car is already sold," he tried to persuade me.

"Listen, young man," I warned him. "I want that car. And when I want something, I am prepared to pay for it. Have that car here by not later than one o'clock, July 1st, and I will give you $1,000 more for it."

That particular car was delivered to me on schedule. At 15 minutes to one o'clock, July 1st, 1920.

Things like that were common. They happened every day. Some involved little money. Some were more expensive. Like the car. Like anything else. Because it gave me a thrill to pose as a Count of Monte Cristo. To be able to walk in anywhere and tell the man in charge: "Wrap it up, please. I'll take it." Regardless of whether the item was a box of candy or a building.

One day I walked down to the market district. I went in. Where I had been working less than two years before. I wanted to see the boys and girls. My former co-workers. I stopped to chat with each of them. Then I walked into Poole's private office. He was not expecting my visit. And much less what I had in store for him. Nor did he know that I was a millionaire. He had heard that I was doing pretty well.

"Have a seat, Charlie," he said. "They tell me that you're in business. Dealing in some sort of foreign securities."

"That's right," I admitted.

"How are you making out?" he inquired.

"Fairly good." I replied. "That's what brought me here. To get your advice. I have a few dollars I would like to invest."

"Why don't you buy a few shares of my preferred stock," he suggested. "It pays 7%."

"I would rather have some common," I told him. "It ought to pay more."

"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said. "I will give you 25 shares of each."

"Is that all?" I complained. "It seems hardly enough to bother with it."

Poole looked kind of puzzled. He didn't know whether I was fooling or in earnest.

"How much more stock do you want?", he asked.

"I'll take all you have," I replied indifferently.

Poole laughed. He was amused. Thought it was a pretty good joke.

Coming from an ex-employee of his. But he pitied me a little, at the same time. Thinking I was sort of looney.

"Listen Charlie," he said, trying to break it to me gently, "It takes a lot of money to buy this company."

"I figured it would," I agreed. "That's why I have waited this long to call on you. I was afraid I wouldn't have enough."

"And you may still be short of the mark," he commented skeptically. "However, if you can afford them, you may have 500 shares of preferred for $477,5000 and 200 shares of common for $35,200."

"Do I get with it a directorship in your company?" I asked.

"Yes, you can have the directorship, too," he agreed, still believing in his own heart that I was only bluffing.

"In that case, have the certificates made out," I told him.

"Where is the money?" he asked.

"Right here," I said pulling out a check-book.

I made out the check. Handed it to him. He took it. And looked sort of sheepish. He knew the check was good.

"I didn't think you meant it," he said.

"J. R., I never bluff," I told him, and taking from my wallet six certified checks made out to me for $200,000 each, I spread them before his eyes.

"Good Lord!" he said. "That's $1,200,000!"

"Yes, and there are several more millions back of them," I assured him.

A few days later, I bought from Poole the remaining 550 shares of common stock. Paying for it about $206,000. And I loaned the company another $155,000. Poole and I had agreed to increase its capitalization to one million dollars and open branches in several foreign countries.

The deal added to the variety of my holdings. It gave me a sardine factory up in Maine. And a meat packing plant out of Kansas City. Both owned by the J. R. Poole Company. I must have felt in my bones that the depression was coming. Because with what I took over I certainly made preparations to cope with it.

Not only was I buying right and left. But I was also opening branches all over creation. I had 35 of them in New England. I had large accounts in about 45 banks. I was going like a house afire!

People must have thought I had discovered the buried treasure of the Incas. Or Alladin's lamp. If they gave a thought at all to the coupons, they must have got dizzy figuring how many of them I needed to justify what I was doing. In fact, my visible resources then were in excess of $5,000,000. Assuming I earned two cents on each coupon, I should have had to handle over 250,000,000 of them! It was absurd. There were not that many in the world. There had never been that many. And it would have taken months to print them!

The long and short of it is that, for some time, I had not been getting any coupons at all. In fact, after the first lot, I had not been able to buy any more. Except in small quantities. For no other reason than the existing supply was not sufficient to meet the increased demand. They had to be ordered from the Universal Postal Union. But the moment the postal administrations of the various countries concerned began to notice an unusual activity in coupons, the cat was out of the bag. One by one they took steps to suspend the sale of coupons.

I learned of it soon. Sooner, in fact, than official Washington. But not soon enough to get out from under. Confident that the coupons were on the way, I had redeemed a number of my notes with cash derived from the issuance of new notes. When the coupons failed to arrive, I found myself in the position where I could not have met all my outstanding notes in full. Not only couldn't I pay the promised 50% return. But I couldn't even refund the principal at more than 75 cents on the dollar.

"What was I going to do? Proclaim my insolvency and face prosecution, or keep up the bluff and trust to luck. I kept up the bluff, hoping that I might eventually hit upon some workable plan to pay all my creditors in full. It never occurred to me to pocket all the ready cash and duck out. If I had, I wouldn't have been called the darn fool as many times as I have been.

Fortunately a darned fool had no occasion to be lonesome, anywhere. He generally finds plenty of company, just like I did, in the most unexpected places. That's why I managed to survive a few months longer.

In fact, one morning the postal inspectors paid me a call; one of the regular calls, I should say, because they had been in the habit of dropping in every now and then. The moment I saw them I could tell by their countenances that they had something up their sleeves and they had too. But that something might as well have been "arm-bands," for all the good it did them. However, their buoyancy put me on my guard.

"Mr. Ponzi," said one, "we have found that some of your statements cannot be reconciled with certain advices that we have received from the department."

"Which is equivalent to say that since you would not dispute the department, I must be a liar," I remarked.

"No, no," he hastened to assure me, "but we have come to hear what explanations you may have to offer."

"On what subject?" I asked.

"On the subject of your purchases of coupons," he replied. "Where do you buy them?"

"I am not telling that," I replied, refusing to commit myself, "I will merely say that they can be profitably bought in any country having a depreciated paper currency."

"For instance?" he insisted.

"For instance, Italy, France, Roumania, Greece, and so forth," I answered.

"Exactly," he said. "Now we have information that Italy, France and Roumania have withdrawn from the postal agreement and stopped the sale of coupons since March 31st."

"You are not telling me anything new," I retorted. "That information was sent out some time ago by your department to every postoffice and I have copies of the bulletin."

"Do you admit that coupons can no longer be purchased in those countries?" he asked, trying to pin me down.

"No, I cannot admit that," I answered. "I may admit, if that helps you that they are no longer for sale to the general public. But I have every reason to believe that my orders are not being turned down anywhere."

"If that is so, it is being done without the knowledge of those governments," he stated.

"Perhaps so," I agreed, "but that is no concern of mine. All that I am interested in is in getting them."

"Assuming that you may still obtain the coupons, how are you going to redeem them?" he inquired.

"The same as usual," I replied. "By presenting them at the post-office."

"But all postmasters have been instructed not to redeem coupons issued by those countries after March 31st," he maintained.

"What of it?" I rebutted. "If the coupons are still obtainable in those countries, regardless of all the regulations to the contrary, it would be an easy matter to have them stamped with a date prior to March 31st."

"Do you mean to say that you have connections with some postal officials who are disloyal to their governments?" he kept on, crowding me.

"I don't mean to say anything of the kind," I replied. "I am merely showing you how certain difficulties can be overcome. You may draw all the inferences you want."

Just then Al Ciullo came in the office. A friend. Fate had sent him. He did not know the two men talking with me were inspectors. He had no idea of what we were talking about.

"Charlie," he said, interrupting the conversation and handing me an envelope with about 300 international reply coupons. "I have just received this package of coupons from Italy."

I took them out of the envelope. Looked them over. And smiled. The two inspectors turned upon him like lightning.

"Where did you get them?" they asked him.

"I got them from my uncle in Italy," Ciullo replied.

"Who is he?" the inspector pressed on.

"He is a postmaster in a small town," Ciullo told him.

"When did you receive them?" the inspector fired at him.

"This morning," he stated.

"How?" the inspector went on.

"By mail," said Ciullo.

"Let's see the envelope," the inspector asked me.

I handed the envelope to him. He examined it carefully. Looked at the cancellation mark. It bore a May date.

"Well," I told the inspector with a bit of sarcasm, "I hope you are satisfied now that somebody else besides myself can buy coupons in Italy. Even if it is two months since March 31st."

"I'll be damned!" said the inspector departing with his running mate. He had seen enough to give him a fit.

Regardless of the difficulties that had developed, I did not abandon all together the idea of buying coupons. I knew human nature. I knew the weak point of public officials. I knew that money talks everywhere. And I proposed to make it talk.

The president of the Hanover Trust Company was a sort of unofficial representative of the Polish government. Whether actually or allegedly, I don't know. But he seemed familiar with events in Poland. And in a position to approach officials of that country. In the course of a conversation, he mentioned to me that Poland was trying to negotiate a $10,000,000 loan in the United States.

That, gave me an idea.

"Henry," I said to him, "this is your chance of a life-time to clean up some real dough."

"How?" he asked.

"Get in touch with the right parties in Poland," I told him, "and fix it so that they sell me enough international reply coupons for the equivalent, in their own money, of $10,000,000. I can give them the ten millions inside of two weeks. And I am willing to take delivery of the coupons over a period of six months."

"I may put the proposition to them," he agreed. "But I don't know what success I'll have."

"Listen, Henry," I said to him. "Public officials are very much the same the world over. Go to it. I am no piker."

While he undertook to cover Warsaw's end of the deal, I took care of the Washington's end. It was as important to redeem the coupons as it was to buy them. But the deal involved such a large number that only the Postmaster General himself could handle it.

I instructed my attorney to get in touch with him. He did so. Through Congressman Peter Tague. And in a few days the congressman wired back that the Postmaster General Burleson had pronounced the transaction entirely legal. Not only that, but the congressman, who I met shortly after in the Parker House, told me that Postmaster General Burleson had also agreed to redeem $1,000,000 worth of those coupons a month.